I find it very hard to review The Unquiet Grave. It is not like any other book, and means a good deal to me. It was written when Connolly was anguished by his approaching fortieth birthday. I read it when I had just passed my eightieth.
I recommend it to older readers. It is at times a help not to feel alone, to know that others have felt some of what you are feeling. So much of the book is memorable that lists of quotations are available on line. I liked this one: "I am now forced to admit that anxiety is my true condition, occasionally intruded on by work, pleasure, melancholy or despair" Perhaps my favourite, and one of the best known: “Life is a maze in which we take the wrong turning before we have learned to walk.”
Some of the writing is very much of its time, and it is worth remembering it was written in London during the darker hours of the war. The rambling recollections of happier days in France have to be read with this in mind, and do rather reek of privilege. That said, it is a book I should not wish to be without. It has given me comfort and delight in my declining years.
Reading the Unquiet Grave for the first time is like tasting a few dishes of the most enticing hors d'oevre of one's life. It is not a coherent thesis or novel, but a collection of thoughts by one of the most able minds of his generation.The first paragraph states that the true function of a writer is to create a masterpiece and that no other task is of any consequence. From then on the book travels through several courses at the highest intellectual level down to the most basic: It ranges over several civilisations in both space and time, noting their distilled wisdom - not without humour- and reflecting on art, sexuality, drug addiction, religion and, by the way, the nature of his pet Lemurs. I confess it took me twenty one years to fully understand it, and this understanding reflected my own slow maturing. What is most surprising about this book is its origin. It was written by the editor Cyril Connolly in a year of depression following the breakdown of a relationship. He was editor of an avante garde magazine in London during WWII. And yet this book is purely classical in its views, and it is perhaps for that reason that it is entirely relevant today, based in the practical accomodation of human nature that gave rise to our greatest civilisations and yet very aware of the high ideals and aspirations that drove them. His observations on human relationships are accurate; his insights into the causes of the breakdown of marriage seem simple but inescapable because of that, and in my job as a general practitioner doctor, I always find that couples in the middle of a breakdown in their relationship are able to draw some comfort or insight from this book. His observations on art, the three requisites for a masterpiece, if accepted by the reader, go a long way to explaining the incompatibility of modern and classical art. The most famous quote from this book (the author was obese and self indulgent) 'Inside every fat man a thin one is wildly signalling to be let out' is trite compared to his comments on the meaning of life, the universe and everything. Taoism and Confucianism are observed in the same detached way as Christianity, all of it in the most exquisite prose than poignantly brings home to the reader the bankruptcy of much modern literary style. It is easy to see the author as pompous and arrogant, but he succeeds in achieving what he says in the first pages: 'To weave a book that will last a thousand years, the writer must learn to use invisible ink'. Just so. He was 40 when he wrote this book. In a central chapter he states: 'No one over 35 is worth meeting who cannot teach us more, say, than we can learn from a book'. Perhaps. This book is one of my most treasured possessions. It has been a tutor in life. It is classical, eternal, profound, and in a thousand years it will be still be just as relevant.